IN A first for SA, a mining company and its director have been convicted of contravening environmental laws, but nongovernmental organisations said they were disappointed the fines imposed were largely suspended.
The legal action marks the end of an era for mining companies after decades of not being brought to book for environmental degradation. Several similar criminal charges are being investigated.
Mpumalanga-based Anker Coal & Mineral Holdings was fined a total of R260000 for contraventions of the National Environmental Management Act and the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.
The fines were conditionally suspended for five years. The company was also ordered to pay R144000 in compensation to a farmer on whose land it performed exploration drilling.
Anker Coal director Albrecht Frick, who pleaded guilty in a plea agreement with the state, was not available for comment yesterday.
Centre for Environmental Rights director Melissa Fourie said yesterday the case "exposes the wholly inadequate fines provided for in the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act for environmental offences…. The very moderate fines in this agreement are all suspended in their entirety, with the only funds payable being the compensation to the landowner.
"Unless we punish perpetrators appropriately for flouting the law, the behaviour of companies like Anker Coal and its disregard for its impacts on the environment will never change," she said.
Anker Coal faces additional criminal charges relating to two mining sites near Ermelo, said Federation for a Sustainable Environment director Koos Pretorius, who worked as an adviser to the prosecution.
Mr Frick’s attorney, Jonathan Stockwell of Werksmans, said yesterday these cases were "infinitely more complicated".
Mr Frick and Anker Coal were convicted in the Ermelo Regional Court after he had admitted to contravening the National Environmental Management Act by drilling holes in an ecologically sensitive area (a wetland); leaving core drillings in the veld and road; prospecting inside a 100-year floodline; and failing to properly fill and cap drill holes.
Contraventions of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act were: failing to rehabilitate the boreholes drilled; failing to remove core materials and submit a rehabilitation plan; and "wrongfully and negligently" giving the Department of Mineral Resources incorrect information.
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said yesterday: "This plea and sentence agreement is a victory for the protection of our wetlands and other water resources for present and future generations."